I was a child when the Sisterhood took me from my homeworld. They taught me to worship the Emperor and to fight in His name. I became a part of the Adepta Sororitas, the Orders Militant of the Church of Man. My duty was to preserve the purity of the human species, by fighting and exterminating deviants, heretics and mutants. When I discovered that I myself had the powers of witchcraft, I willingly submitted to the judgement of my Order, and awaited execution. I was saved by a secret group dedicated to the service of the Emperor, who claimed I was destined to be one of His champions.
My name is Antonia. I am a Sister of Battle. This is my story.
I have heard many preachers talk at length on the subject of hell. They speak of fires and devils, all manner of gruesome tortures, everlasting damnation beyond death. I remember the exact moment I realised they were wrong.
I was standing in the doorway of a ruined house, gazing at the huddled, terrified man in the glare of the twin searchlights on my shoulders. Outside the sky was stained red with smoke and ash, and the air stung with the dust it carried. There were flashes of light as bombs burst far away, reflecting off the clouds of burned debris. The shattered frames of buildings stood like tombstones. This was the fate that an entire world had been reduced to.
And I stood there, with the familiar weight of my weapon in my hands. The roof creaked as the wind battered against it. The servomotors in my armour whirred, almost silent now that I was still. The man in my sights was crying softly, his spirit utterly broken. His clothes were nothing more than dirt-stained rags. His feet were bare, and caked with dried blood from scrambling across the jagged, broken ground of what had been his home. His hands were thin and brittle-looking, the backs covered with networks of veins. He held them over his face, as if to shield himself from me. I had only to pull the trigger, and it would be done. That was my duty.
He was innocent. The knowledge came to me with the inevitability of a sunrise, clean and pure, straight from his poor, terrified soul. And with that knowledge came the horrible realisation that everything I thought I had achieved had been for nothing. The duty I had prized so highly was false. The comfort I found in my prayers had been nothing more than a lie I had told myself, to keep myself from having to face my life alone, unaided. Everything I trusted was gone.
There is a popular saying that faith is a person's armour, and few who repeat it realise how literally true it is. True faith can withstand any attack, and remain intact. Indeed, under adversity faith is most likely to only grow stronger. But when attacked from inside, when that which we believe in fails us, then our armour of faith only serves to reflect the destructive force back on us, ensuring total obliteration.
That is hell.
There have often been times when, given the opportunity to take stock of my life without immediate danger, I find myself amazed at the calm I have summoned to carry me through past troubles. One such time was the first night I sat on the thin, worn mattress in my cramped quarters on the freighter Catherine. It was only then, with the first difficult step of my journey taken, that I thought back to the solitude of the previous hours, and shuddered.
Faith had carried me through my entire life until that day. Faith first in the Emperor, which had been taught to me, and which I willingly embraced, since the first day I was old enough to understand the words. That allowed me to grow and learn, and be seen to be a promising student. Then faith in the Sisterhood, when they came for me and took me from my family. My parents and brothers were very dear to me, but the pain of leaving them behind was a pain I accepted without hesitation. Believing in the Sisterhood as I did, I was sure that my sacrifice in joining them was worth the suffering that I and my Sisters would alleviate in the pursuit of our duties. I never lost that faith, even when the Sisterhood itself judged me guilty of witchcraft, and gave me the remainder of the night to prepare myself to face the Emperor, who would sit in final judgement of me following my execution. How could I argue, when in my last battle I had seen the Necron slayer-machines crushed to scrap by my will alone?
And then, during that night when I waited for death, I had found faith in myself. If I had not, I would have refused to flee when my strange benefactor, the psyker Toldra, clouded the sight of my guards and led me away from the chapel. I knew - though I could not be sure how - that he had put no spells on me to ensure my obedience, yet when he told me that I was not meant to die, I believed him.
But faith in oneself is fickle, and easily tested. I remember I had forced myself to stop asking questions of myself before they overwhelmed me. That could easily have been the case - I could have allowed myself to be crushed by what will I do, who can I trust, where will I go? I surely would have ended up immobilised by doubt, pleading with the galaxy to tell me what my life should be. Instead I made myself aware of only one thing: I must live, and so I must elude the Sisterhood, who would know I was gone within the hour. That left only two questions: where would I flee to, and how? Fortunately, the solution to the second solved the first, too.
The chapel was only a few miles from the spaceport, so the idea of leaving the world was immediate. Ironically, the Sisterhood had given me the knowledge I needed to put myself onto an outbound ship, by teaching me how to prevent heretics - like myself, I recall thinking - doing exactly that. Freighters like the ones berthed at Hadron that morning lose crew with practically every planetfall they make, through injury or retirement, or simply a deckhand deciding that life in space is not for him. As the vast majority of people never leave their homeworld, they would be surprised how many menial labourers aboard commercial starships are willing to simply leave ship, and remain forever on a world they had never before set foot on, just to escape space. Space is not an environment conducive to human happiness - many of my fellow Sisters were glad to set foot on solid ground, no matter what their mission, after a prolonged journey on our transport. Most, I think, weren't consciously aware of it - the few that were spoke of a feeling like loneliness. I can't say I ever experienced what they described, but Sisters are not given to whimsy, and I never doubted that their unease was less than genuine.
In my predicament, though, the phenomenon provided me with a means of escape. It took barely an hour in the huddle of bars by the spaceport to find a ship in need of unskilled but professional crew, and a captain I was convinced was not engaged in some sort of illegal activities on the side. Moral considerations aside, the last thing I needed was to be captured during a Navy raid on a smuggler. My heightened instincts served me well in avoiding several questionable officers, who to look at seemed quite respectable. The fact that I was wearing armour under my cloak also helped, implying both experience and proficiency on my part - even shrouded in its new, dull grey, and stripped of its Sisterhood markings, the workmanship of my suit was obvious. I could see the men I approached thinking that anyone wearing such a suit of armour seeking a berth on a ship was either a very capable spacefarer, or some sort of criminal. The latter suspicion I concealed without trouble, though the part of me that valued little above truth made me regret doing so. I promised myself that I would recite a litany of penance once I was out of harm's way, but to be honest I think I was even more concerned by the ease with which I was able to influence the thoughts of the people I spoke to. Perhaps my appearance and manner were the cause, but I couldn't shake the feeling that they believed me because I made it so. It worried me - altering a man's mind was an ability I associated too closely with the witches and cult demagogues that, as a Sister of Battle, it had been my duty to destroy. It was not a skill I wished to develop.
The captain of the Catherine was a man named Terhan Benedict, and I found myself respecting him the moment I set my thoughts on him. That he was reputable I could see unaided - in the few moments I had watched him before approaching, he had avoided the company of some of the less savoury characters in the bar, and contented himself with the companionship of his thoughts, and quite a small drink. I saw him speak to two people, one a young boy, the other a short, stocky man with a scar across his cheek, both of whom seemed to be enquiring about a vacancy on his ship. From their expressions he turned both down, but not without a discussion, and so I sat next to him and inquired, politely, if he needed new crew. He looked at me carefully, studying my armour and face, and nodded.
"Deckhand, for the most part," he answered, and then added: "Perhaps a watch officer, on third shift, if you're able." That last detail - standing watch during the ship's 'night' time, when the captain and main crew would be asleep - would be a tempting offer to a prospective spacefarer, and that he mentioned it to me was a fair indication that he trusted me somewhat. I made sure not to seem too eager in return, mentioning the rudimentary ship maintenance skills I had, which I had picked up during long voyages on the Holy Sentinel and the Saint Valkyrie. I told him I had spent a fair amount of time in space, but admitted that handling a ship was something I had had no experience of - I think my honesty there had some affect on him, because he relaxed a touch. After a few moments he gave me a berth number and told me which of his crew to speak to. I thanked him, and having nothing else to do, and no wish to tarry, I made my way straight to the ship and boarded. Captain Benedict's executive officer, Lieutenant Reid, was a tall, thin woman, young but with pure white hair, cut short and pulled into a ponytail. She had me wait in the ship's mess hall until Benedict returned several hours later, having concluded his business ashore. Once the captain had confirmed my appointment - with the provisional rank of ensign, for the purposes of the ship's roster - Reid was more courteous and conversational, though I kept myself to short answers to her questions about my prior employment, and let my appearance and skills suggest whatever background she cared to imagine for me.
The Catherine was, and still is so far as I'm aware, a solid old ship. Her hull is one of the Maru class, probably the most common in the Imperium for light freighters, and she's been taken care of with a dedication and attention to detail that would put some Navy escort ships to shame. Her ion drive is a stable workhorse model, well-maintained and capable of running at Imperial standard by three without complaining, and her warp drive is small but elegant, and according to the chief engineer, Lieutenant Ronsom, has never had a single non-standard component put into it. All hallmarks of a wise, respectable captain, which is what I had judged Captain Benedict to be, a judgement which was confirmed by all that I saw during my time with him. He had named the ship when he bought her, he told me in a moment of unusual candidness, after a girl he used to know on his homeworld, to remind himself what he had given up by choosing to work in space.
It was unusual for him to talk of such things, I gathered, but the situation was itself unusual, and terrible. Most freighters worry endlessly about the chance of being attacked by pirates, and never are: the Navy spends a good deal of time pursuing unlicensed ships, and though a good case could be made for their pursuit being over-zealous, they keep the pirates at bay throughout the spacelanes stretching between the Imperium's industrial heart and the hundreds of commercial worlds. In addition to this, experienced captains always make sure to keep their ships armed and in good order for battle - a freighter isn't a warship, but neither is a pirate vessel most of the time, and a few volleys of fire from a respectable gun battery is enough to deter most attackers. We were unlucky.
It was the second day of our journey to Nova Venezia, and my first watch on the bridge. Captain Benedict had offered me the chance to command, during the third shift as he'd said when we met, with Lieutenant Reid informally 'observing' to make sure I didn't cause any harm. Benedict, I think, hoped I might be persuaded to join the crew for a time - he was a shrewd judge of character, and unless I'm mistaken he saw military training in my conduct during the tasks I was assigned after we took off from Hadron. But he didn't ask me about it - I can only guess that he trusted me sufficiently to ignore this suspicious knowledge on my part, and assumed that my reasons for concealing it were good. Secretly, I was afraid that I might have made him trust me by more than persuasion, and I kept the influence of my thought very tightly under control when I spoke to him those first few duty shifts.
As watch officer, my duties were simply to provide the presence of a ranking officer on the bridge - to fulfil the ship's license commitment to the Adeptus Mercantorus - and summon the captain in the event of anything unexpected occurring. Reid busied herself at the back of the cramped bridge deck, running some sort of financial projections for the ship's logs, glancing over her shoulder at me and the helmsman now and then, but largely leaving the command to me.
The Catherine was nothing like a warship, or even the fleet corvettes I had been stationed on by the Sisterhood. While we travelled in real space, the helmsman - crewman DeSigno, during that shift - had only to keep the ship steady on her course, and the space we were in was well-charted, giving us ample notice of any phenomena that could affect a ship of our size, such as meteor fields or gravitic tides. When we shifted into warp space the ship was in the hands of her Navigator, isolated in his squat tower which jutted out of the ship's dorsal hull like a unicorn's horn. When I began my watch we were in the warp, and for the next four hours my sole responsibility was to receive and record the Navigator's progress reports, delivered every twenty minutes in his reedy, soprano voice. I formed a mental image of him, based on what I had been taught of Navigators at the Schola years ago - cocooned in a tiny womb of sensors and shielding, lit only by the blinking indicators of his control panels, with the blind third eye in his forehead staring out through the tides of the warp, locked on the Astronomican shining from Terra, and by that beacon steering us through the whirlwinds and rip tides, towards our destination. I wondered, in the intervals between his reports when I had nothing else to do, whether he got lonely, or tired, or whether the fact that he was suspended fifteen metres from the rest of the ship, inside a tiny bubble of atmosphere and plasteel, made him feel vulnerable to the mindless, hungry things that swirled through the warp. Perhaps not - though Navigators seem quite human, some even to the extent of having an invisible third eye, and being able to pass for a normal man, the way they think is unlike ours. Though I never set eyes on the Catherine's Navigator, I did come to know some of his kind later, well enough to settle the questions that arose in my mind during that watch. Where other humans rarely feel at home in space, Navigators are never content anywhere other than the warp, where they can see the Astronomican clearly. To be elsewhere, in real space - particularly on a planet, with its massive gravity well - is to be half-blind, to them.
After four hours we dropped out of the warp, and control reverted to the bridge. The Navigator, in his capsule, was retracted back within the ship's own shields and hull, and the ion drives powered up for the lethargic trip across the junction. It would be five more hours until we were in position to return to the warp, where - if the Navigator had calculated correctly, as of course he had - we would find ourselves in a clear current running all the way to Nova Venezia.
It was barely five minutes after we left the warp that I experienced a strange sensation, something a little like claustrophobia, I think, as if I were being crowded in a small space. Had the distinct feeling someone was directly behind me, standing too close to me, but when I turned Reid was still at the read-out station, and the rest of the bridge's rear was empty. But the feeling persisted for a moment - and what made me take it seriously, rather than dismiss it, was that I realised that when I turned the feeling had shifted around me to my front, as if something truly had been behind me, and I now faced it. Then it faded, and I felt nothing at all out of the ordinary.
"Sir," I called to Reid, a little hesitantly - I had no wish to cause a commotion over nothing on my first shift, "could we run a check on the warp drive? I felt something odd when we dropped." Reid shrugged and switched off her station, crossing to the drive's access port.
"What was it you felt?" she asked. I told her I wasn't sure, and described the feeling as best I could. She nodded - not dismissively, as I'd been fearing - and began to check off the tiny indicator valves in the drive's status read-out, testing each one for proper function. "Could be a burn-out in one of the field generators," she said, more to herself than to me, "just need a swap with a new one. Still, best to be certain-" She broke off as Captain Benedict emerged from the bridge's access hatch, his work uniform crumpled, but his eyes wide awake. I quickly stood from the captain's chair and took my place at the back of the bridge, out of the way.
"Navigator woke me," Benedict explained as he sat, "bleating about something being wrong with our warp jump. I couldn't make head or tail of it." Reid told Benedict what I'd told her, and read off a pair of signature codes from the warp drive - I had no idea what they meant, but Benedict's demeanour changed at once. He ordered Reid to check a specific valve on the drive, and his voice as he gave the order was low and precise, as if he was preparing for battle - which he was. While Reid worked, Benedict began a full scan of the space surrounding the Catherine, and told me to monitor the results as they came in.
"It's a raider," he told us after Reid had confirmed the valve's reading was what Benedict had expected. "The braver and stupider ones sometimes hide in a ship's wash in the warp, and drop back into real space with them, close enough to ride through our warp jump before it dissipates. Damn risky, if the jump closes too soon being killed is the least that'll happen to them, but if it works they get right up close to us, and our sensors don't see them coming. This one won't be scared off by a few guns, either, not if he's desperate enough to try a stunt like that."
The scan took a further three minutes to isolate the raider, and by that time it was nearly on top of us, well inside the minimum range of our main guns. The rest of the main bridge crew had responded to the captain's summons by then, and Benedict ordered Chen, the tactical officer, to keep an eye on the raider and open fire with the light gun batteries if he got the chance. Then he turned to me.
"If I'm not mistaken, you've seen combat before now," he said. "I'd advise you to head back aft and get into that armour of yours. I'll authorise you to pull whatever weapons you want out of the armoury, but remember we're in a closed atmosphere here: no armour-piercing rounds unless you've been trained to use them in a ship. My crew knows what to do in this sort of situation, so you meet me at the junction of bulkhead three and the main corridor, and then we'll proceed together. Got that?"
I nodded and made my way back to my quarters as quickly as I could. Already the crew were at work, welding access ports to the ventilation system shut, handing out lasguns and needle pistols, and running sensor wires across the ship's corridors, ready to alert them when the raiders boarded us. It took me only a moment to change out of the worksuit I had been issued from ship's stores, and prepare my armour for use. Lacking any icon of significance to the Mechanicus, I settled for speaking a brief litany of honour to the Emperor in His aspect as Machine God while the servomotors were charging, and added a prayer to Him from one of the Books of Redemption, which seemed appropriate as it asked for His blessing on behalf of His servants who found themselves alone and under threat in hostile space. For the first time since my trial and scheduled execution, I felt like a Sister of Battle again. I made my way back to the captain as quickly as I could, noting that already the corridors were beginning to empty, as the crew fell back to defensible positions, readying themselves to repel the attack. Captain Benedict had spent half an hour during the first day I had been on board telling me, in detail, what would happen if an enemy should attempt to board the Catherine. I'm sure he did it as a routine precaution only, though he didn't say so at the time, presumably to be sure that I didn't dismiss what he told me. "It is extremely unlikely that weapons fire will damage the ship prior to boarding," he told me. "The Catherine, like most freighters, carries her cargo in shielded modules mounted around the hull itself, so that any fire a pirate directed at us will most likely destroy the cargo he is trying to steal, before doing us any real damage. Knowing this, pirates make sure their ships were fast enough to catch freighters without disabling their engines, and equipped with enough breaching pods to cut their way into the ship at several points on the hull. If they breached us at only one or two points, or tried to use the airlocks, we'd be able to barricade the first junction they'll come to, and gun them down like Guardsmen at target practice.
"In the event that the Catherine is boarded, the crew is trained to respond rapidly to any incursion. We have thirty crewmen, each one able to handle a lasgun and a needle pistol in confined spaces. These weapons aren't the most powerful we have, but they won't blow a hole in the hull if they miss their target. Needlers are for taking down men wearing cloth or pressure suits - if they've got real armour, use the lasguns, the needlers will just bounce off. We divide into ten teams of three each, two gunners and one sensor to a team. The sensor's job is to listen to orders from the bridge, where Reid will be monitoring the situation and giving directions. This ship has three hundred miles of internal sensor cabling in it - a pirate will know to look for it, and might even find it, but in the meantime we'll be able to locate them. Even if they do find it, we'll know they're in a section of the sensor feed drops out. He paused then, and looked distant. "It's damned dirty fighting," he said at last, "I've lost some good friends over the years. I hope you don't see the like of it."
I rejoined the captain at the junction. Reid was waiting with him, armed with a needle pistol, but she returned to the bridge once another crewman, Gerrin, reported for duty. Gerrin was our team's sensor: he carried a vox pack connected to an earpiece, and had a laspistol at his side. Benedict had a lasgun slung on his back, and carried a needle rifle with a beautiful wooden stock, inlaid with gleaming bronze detailing. "Family weapon," he said, seeing me look at it. I had stopped by the ship's armoury, just before it was sealed, welded shut and depressurised to keep it out of enemy hands. Heeding Benedict's warning I resisted the urge to take one of the handful of bolters - they were an older model, the Crusade pattern that date back millennia, yet they still would have been the most familiar weapon I could have chosen. But Benedict was right, the risk of blasting a hole through the outer hull and compromising the ship's atmosphere was far too great. Instead I took a lasgun, and a laspistol for the empty holster in my armour. In the few moments it took me to move from the armoury to the junction I tested both weapons, and found them to be old but well-serviced, and in good working order so far as I could tell short of firing them.
Benedict led us down into the service ducts, several decks below the crew compartments. He told me he had a hunch that the pirates would come at us from below. Most freighters, he said, tended not to carry cargo mounted directly beneath their hulls, to allow them to make planetfall without reconfiguring their cargo modules. The Catherine was carrying a full load, so there were no empty cargo module mounts, but Benedict guessed that several of the pirates would pilot their breaching pods below the ship, and would burn through the hull there, despite the inconvenience of docking between the closely-pack cargo modules, rather than spend more fuel manoeuvring into a new position. As he whispered this to me, Gerrin was listening to a message from the bridge.
"Sir," the crewman said in a hushed voice, "Lieutenant Reid says they're trying the airlocks, and asks captain's permission to proceed." Benedict nodded, Gerrin relayed his assent, and a moment later the hull shook with a distant rumble.
"Shrapnel charges on the airlocks," Benedict explained, "that'll take care of some of them. Keep an ear open, you'll hear the hull burning before you see it. Sizzling noise, like frying meat. The hull to our left has vacuum on the other side, so they may try to come in that way." We walked the cramped corridors as silently as we could, with Gerrin whispering updates to Benedict as he got them. I strained my ears for the slightest noise, but could only hear the ship's systems, the slow thudding of the ion drive beneath my feet, and the quiet stirring of air through the ventilation system.
We were under the water processor, I believe, when I heard the hull being cut. I stopped moving instantly, Benedict and Gerrin doing likewise, and they both heard it too. It was very much like meat frying, a crackling, spitting sound that rose and fell randomly as the cutter torch worked through impurities in the hull. Benedict pointed to a spot on the corridor wall, a few metres ahead of us, and waved us back a metre to a bulkhead, where we waited behind the edges of the doorway, rifles aimed. Presently a slim arc of red appeared on the wall, spreading to form a circle a metre wide, slowly rising in brilliance until it was burning white. "Three seconds," whispered Benedict.
Exactly three seconds later the circle fell inwards, clanging against the opposite wall, dragging a cloud of acrid smoke with it. A shadow moved in the smoke and Benedict held his fire, letting me take the shot. My lasgun fired smoothly, hardly rougher than the newly manufactured training rifles I had used at the Schola. The beam struck the shadow in its centre, flashing into a blast as it touched. There was a guttural cry, the shape fell back, then more people were pushing past it into the corridor, and both Benedict and Gerrin fired. Gerrin's shot impacted on a crudely-made steel chestplate one of the pirates wore, knocking him back but not injuring him. Benedict's needle dart flew straight into the exposed neck of another, and he dropped instantly.
I let my gun cool for half a second then fired again, blasting Gerrin's target in the face as he gathered himself from the first shot. His helmet shattered and he fell, dead. Two more men were still on their feet, and both fired on us with laspistols as they charged. One shot impacted on the bulkhead directly in front of me, but shielded by the plasteel and my armour I ignored it; the other flew wide and passed through our doorway to strike the wall far behind us. I fired my lasgun again, without waiting for it to cool - it whined in protest, but held together, and one of the men fell with his shoulder blasted out of its socket. Benedict fired on the other man, again killing him with an expert shot to the neck. Since the corridor had been breached, barely five seconds had passed.
Benedict stood calmly and moved out of the cover of the doorway while Gerrin reported the attack to the bridge. I was somewhat taken aback as I watched Benedict calmly fire a final dart into the neck of my last target, who was lying on the deck groaning in half-consciousness from the pain in his shoulder. It was not that he killed the pirate that shocked me - though he seemed, and indeed was, a gentle man, it was obvious that there was no other course of action to take. And the taking of a human life, even when not in battle, was something I had slowly come to accept as a necessary evil. During my time with the Sisterhood I had seen the Emperor's Peace administered to any number of innocuous scribes and menials, condemned by a mutation in their genes - and though it sickened me, I had done it myself. Benedict had acted entirely on his own, though, without the sanction of the Ecclesiarchy, yet I found myself reluctant to think ill of him for that reason. Instead, it occurred to me to wonder whether the blessing of Terra to carry out such acts was a justification, or merely a blind to keep Terra's servants from questioning their orders.
Benedict obviously considered the encounter over, and at my side Gerrin had relaxed and was adjusting his pistol's power pack, to keep it at peak efficiency. The noise of the hull behind us being cut must have been drowned by the sound of our brief battle. There was only a split second's warning, the time it took for the pirates to smash away the sliced hull section, before they were in the corridor behind us and firing.
Gerrin and I were both still crouched, which saved us from the first volley, fired blind before our attackers had even had a chance to see where we were. Benedict was standing, but farther down the corridor, and his reflexes were excellent, even for a man half his age. I saw him drop to the ground as a pair of las blasts and a single bolter shell flew towards him - three attackers at least, I remember thinking as my own reflexes took command of me. At my side Gerrin was turning to bring his pistol to bear, far too slowly, and even if he had managed to aim without being hit, he was barely five metres from multiple attackers, with no cover - he would certainly have died. I reached out to him and, without thinking of the strength needed, I twisted my body around, hurling him through the doorway to the far side of the bulkhead, my own body shielding him as my turn brought me face to face with the pirates.
I expected to be shot before I could begin my next move, but the three men in front of me seemed to be still in the process of re-aiming after their first volley. I didn't wonder why, but threw myself at them. One fired at me in panic, a snap shot, that flew wide of my chest and took me in the arm. Without my armour I'd have been crippled - as it was the shot spun me around as I cannoned into the pirates, making me lose my balance completely. I fell on my side, with one man underneath me, making a strangled sound as the weight of a full suit of Angel power armour crushed him into the deck. Another had fallen, behind me, and the third was still on his feet. I swung my arm behind me, catching the fallen man a blow that, with the augmented strength of my armour, I hoped would disable him for the seconds I needed to save myself from the other. As I rolled to face him he was already turning his bolter towards me, and I saw I was too late - he would certainly have a chance to fire, point-blank, and at such range the explosive shell was more likely than not to blast through my armour. I kicked at his leg anyway, in desperation, and though I felt no impact he staggered slightly. It delayed him only a second, not enough time for me to attack him again, but as it turned out that second was all that I needed. There was a whistle through the air, and the pirate dropped to the ground, dead, with another of Benedict's needles piercing the back of his skull.
I was badly shaken - despite all the battles I had taken part in with the Sisterhood, I don't believe I had ever been in such immediate, mortal danger as I was in those few seconds. Not since the cultist rebellion on Daylight, at any rate, and in that instance, when I had come face to face with the Demagogue, and been rendered immobile by terror and revulsion, my fate had been in the hands of others, my Sisters, and Ursala, a mile away with her Exitus sniper rifle. This time, as I lay shivering among the bodies of the pirates, the relief that washed over me was touched with anxiety. For even taking into account Benedict's last shot, the battle had been primarily mine, and my life had been saved by reflexes and reactions that I didn't truly understand, and luck, which I didn't like to be indebted to. Looking back to the bulkhead I wondered how I had covered the ground so quickly, that only one man had the chance to fire at me, and inaccurately at that. If I had moved slower, leant the other way, fallen sooner or later, attacked differently - I would have died.
Ironically, with two men only a few metres away, I had been alone until Benedict's shot. The Sisterhood had trained me to be a soldier, and a soldier - even when her nearest comrade is miles away - is never truly alone.
It was a day later that Captain Benedict asked me to dine with him after the day's command shift had finished. The crew, Lieutenant Reid in particular, had been much more amiable towards me since the attack - I suppose I had earned their comradeship, in their eyes, through the shared battle. It reminded me of the times when, with the Sisterhood, I had fought alongside Guardsmen or planetary militia. Always there was a distance between us, a recognition of common purpose and respect for each other's skill, but until we had stood side by side against an enemy the distance would not close. Once that was done, we had become a single unit, and during the hours between battles my Sisters and I would treat the Guardsmen as we would each other. I wished that my current situation hadn't reminded me of that, because since the battle I had missed the Sisterhood terribly, and the notion - the inevitability - of a life without being a Sister of Battle was too bleak to contemplate. The acceptance of the ship's crew was welcome in its own way, but I was all too aware that it was transitory.
"You're not the first," Benedict said, as if reading my mind during dinner. "You were a soldier, weren't you? Don't worry, it's no concern of mine, and there'll be no record of you on this ship other than as a competent civilian. I won't help deserters or criminals by giving them free passage on my ship, but sometimes the Imperium makes mistakes. I like to think I'm a good judge of character. I've had Guardsmen in my crew before; a fair number of planetary conscripts who've served their term, too, and some of them have been unlucky enough to catch a pirate attack on their trip. They all feel the same thing. A couple of the older ones have told me, straight out, but most of them don't know it for what it is. Lucky them, I say.
"The way I see it - and though I'm not rightly a fighting man, I've been in the merchant navy since before you were born, and it's not dissimilar - being a soldier is like being in a family. No matter what happens to you, there's others like you there, too, and you can count on them because they've been through what you've been through. Being a soldier won't make a man - or woman," he added with an apologetic smile, "brave, or skilful, but it'll make them part of something bigger than they are. I think deep down we all want that. Family, army, church, the Imperium - it's all one, in the end.
"In my view - and this is just the opinion of an old man who's had too many years to get fanciful notions into his head," he interrupted himself, which he did often with such observations, apparently to amuse himself, "in my view, it's what keeps most folk out of space, and firmly rooted to the ground. People on a planet are part of it - we grew up on the dirt, from some hairy ape according to a Magos Biologis I had the dubious honour of providing passage for once, and I think we all instinctively know that. It's pretty difficult to stand on a planet and not be able to see some sign of life, whether it be a building or a field full of cattle or grox, or just a tree with a bird building a nest in it. But up here, we can see we're alone. Just us and the stars, and a lot of empty space. Well, I didn't grow up in space, and whatever ape I'm descended from didn't either, and I think in my bones I know it." He saw me gazing at him, hanging on his words, and laughed.
"Don't you pay too much attention to me," he continued, "I just like the sound of my own voice. I'm telling you this just to let you know that, well, it's not so uncommon as you may think, what you're feeling. And I'd advise you not to worry about it. I saw you fight, while I was aiming my shot at that big fellow near you. You move fast, and you've got confidence in yourself, I'm sure of that. I know you're feeling pretty shaken right now, and have been ever since that fight was over, but I'm sure enough to bet my ship that you didn't feel anything of the sort until that last man went down. That's a quality that's not so common as you might think, even among trained fighters. Don't worry about being shaken afterwards - if you didn't, you wouldn't be human."
His words were simple, and sometimes self-evident, but the experience behind them comforted me a little. He continued for some time, telling me about places he'd been, and what he'd seen in his decades in space. He sensed, I think, that I preferred to remain silent - even with his tacit endorsement, I knew I couldn't talk to him about the events that had brought me to him, or reveal that I had been a Sister of Battle. He would not have told anyone, I'm sure, but being an honest man he would have been troubled by the necessity to help me conceal myself. Perhaps he guessed what I had been, but confirmation is entirely different to guesswork, especially in a case such as mine, where my being open to him would have forced him to endorse an act not just of desertion, but of heresy. All in all, it seemed simpler to remain silent, and I was grateful to him for allowing me to do so without awkwardness.
Only once did he stop, and that was an odd moment. He paused during a long discourse on the chain of events that had first led him to working aboard a freighter, as if something was on his mind.
"What do you think," he asked me suddenly, "when you look out of a porthole, at the stars? What do you see? What is the galaxy to you?"
I got a strong sense that he thought the question very important, so I considered it carefully. I thought back to the emotions I had experienced upon the awakening of my strange talents, and found that despite the difficult turns my life had taken since then, my feelings were the same.
"It's beautiful," I answered. Benedict was silent for a long time, thinking over my simple answer.
"You're very lucky," he finally said, then shrugged and returned to his story. There had been no sarcasm or resentfulness in his voice, and when I felt the shape of his thoughts - carefully, and somewhat reluctantly - I found he was somewhat in awe.
We made orbit around Nova Venezia in good time. Once, five days from port, a silent vessel made to approach us, but they didn't employ any techniques to hide themselves, and were spotted in plenty of time to warn them off with a volley from the Catherine's guns. Benedict judged them to be small-scale operators, hoping for a careless or poorly-equipped mark, and only too ready to flee when they didn't find one in us. To say I was glad they retreated would be an understatement - my spirits, which had been none too high despite Benedict's consoling words, had ebbed low again when I undertook the duty of speaking last rites on the dead pirates before the crew loaded their bodies into the least salvageable of their breaching pods and fired them off into deep space. I hopes the prayers of a condemned witch wouldn't prejudice their judgement after death, though being realistic there was little chance that the souls of pirates and murderers would find favour with the Emperor when He judged them.
It saddened me to speak their rites, one by one as they were loaded into their communal sarcophagus, and not only because it reminded me of the desperate melee I had fought against some of them. Watching them I felt, more strongly than ever before, a tremendous sense of loss at the utter uselessness of their lives. With untold millions of men and women fighting every day to hold back the countless enemies of the Imperium, these people had thrown their lives away - they had achieved nothing, served no purpose that would be remembered by their fellows, and left behind them nothing that would be praised by generations to come. Perhaps I should have been angry, but instead I felt sadness that their lives had come to such an end. I saw no trace of mutation or heretical teachings among them or their possessions, and could not believe that their lives were hopeless from the day they were born. Yet somehow the opportunities they had, limited as they doubtless were, had been lost on them, and they had turned their backs on the Imperium, and their fellow men. I know the Imperium is far from ideal, and falling further behind every day, but I wished that people such as these could, somehow, have been helped - have been given a chance to see how their lives could serve a good and noble purpose. I do not believe that any human being is born without the capacity - no matter how limited - to do good without thinking of his own reward. It is our failing, not that of the condemned, that we are forced by necessity to decide that some souls are beyond our help. Perhaps the Emperor would not judge them too harshly.
For the rest of the aftermath, it was little enough. Three of our crewmen had been wounded, one seriously, but he later recovered. Benedict's medic, a small, frail-seeming man called Wendel, had far more skill than I had acquired second-hand from the Sisters Hospitalier I had worked with previously. He asked for my help in saving the wounded man, but didn't truly need it, and the victory was his, not mine. Two other attacks had been made, one on the dorsal service decks, one on the crew quarters, but both were contained, and the pirates wiped out. The Catherine was hardly damaged, and the hull repairs were carried out quickly and silently by the ship's two servitors.
I hadn't realised the ship had servitors until I saw them stomping down the main corridor towards the aft airlock. The Sisterhood transports I had served on were advanced ships, equipped with automated systems to carry out routine repairs, and anything else required the supervision of a Mechanicus Magos anyway, so was left until we reached our next port of call. The servitors unnerved me, with their blank eyes, huge serum-enhanced muscles and clumsy bionics. I flashed back to the poor, mutated souls that I had executed on behalf of the Sisterhood. Some of their bodies might have been turned into creatures such as these, condemned to carry out menial, mechanical tasks until they wore out. I couldn't stop myself from studying their pale, lifeless faces as they passed me, but thankfully neither of them were people I had ever seen before. I stayed well clear of them after that.
My armour required some attention, after the las blast I had taken during the fighting, but luckily it wasn't beyond my ability to repair. It struck me, though, that I had no way of making serious repairs to the suit, or replacing any components that failed. I prayed for the best, and gave thanks for the rudimentary maintenance training that I had received at the Schola. The blast had torn away several layers of plasteel composite from the upper left arm, which I slowly and carefully replaced with standard plasteel from the ship's stores, bonded at the join by plasma-welding. It wasn't quite as strong as the original plating had been, but it was the best I could do, and better than nothing. The shoulder-cloth that had covered the arm was badly burned, and I reluctantly removed it and placed it, folded, into one of the storage compartments on the belt. Luckily the blast hadn't been quite powerful enough to reach the inner surface of the suit, with its arrays of motion sensors and fibre muscle-bundles, which I had neither the skill nor the materials to repair. I hoped my armour would forgive me leaving it patched in such a manner, and with its decoration incomplete. What prayers and blessings from the Mechanicus I knew I gave it, using the ship's Forge-shrine.
Nova Venezia is the embodiment of the Imperium, and in many ways has a greater claim to being its heart than does Terra itself. When I first saw it I was speechless, such was its scale, the awesome scope of its construction and function. Benedict called me to the bridge during our approach - he wanted me to see it, for it gives an understanding of the human species that cannot be matched by learned theory or limited observation.
We neared Nova Venezia from the night-side, with its bulk shielding us from the sun. At first it looked like any other industrialised world, a black sphere marked with lights, dotted on the surface as if sprayed there by rain clouds. The closer we came the more lights I could see, until I realised there were no areas untouched by habitation - the world before me was entirely covered by the spread of its people. We stood off in orbit, as if it were a normal planet, but I had already seen otherwise. Ships were moving freely between orbit and the surface, close enough to us for me to see them unaided by sensors, and they moved as if there was no atmosphere or gravity to impede them, and the world were no more than a giant space-dock. Which, I learned, it was.
No-one knows, now, when Nova Venezia was first built, or even how long it took to construct. Decades certainly, maybe centuries. The method of its formation is held as legend by its rulers, and by the tech-priests of the Machine God, as an example of mankind's rule over nature, his ability to bend the natural forms of the galaxy to fit his will. It was certainly more than twenty thousand years ago when humans first came to the then-unnamed star system and found the single, unremarkable star orbited by the remains of a world, shattered to asteroids by some ancient natural cataclysm. In ten thousand such systems all over the galaxy, colonies had been established to mine the asteroids and ship the minerals to nearby Forge worlds, but this was not to be the case here.
Those early pioneers, and their Navigators, had realised that the tides and currents of the warp made this system a natural waypoint for warp travel throughout the entirety of what we now call the Segmentum Pacificus, a fifth of the human empire as it was then. If a fortress, a sanctuary, could be established here, they reasoned, the entire western arc of the galaxy would be opened up for colonisation and industrial exploitation. And by some marvel of engineering, from the remains of the star's shattered planet, they created a new world.
Nova Venezia is the size of Terra, and entirely artificial. Its hull, for want of a better word for its surface, is three hundred miles thick in some placed, and in others barely twenty. Beneath that, there is nothing - the machine-world is entirely hollow, and the gravity that the core of a world would provide is generated instead by gravitic plating on the interior of the surface, powered by tens of thousands of plasma reactors. Nova Venezia has the surface area of an entire world, sufficient to sustain a population of billions, who work its factories, fuel refineries, freight stations and dock facilities - yet its gravity is insignificant to a starship's engines, and a ship of any size, even a great capital cruiser, can lower itself into one of the huge chasms that serve as docking ports, with no need of shields to protect it from atmospheric friction during descent, or thrust-boosters to keep it from smashing itself to pieces during landing. It is the largest, most ambitious, most efficient and most successful port in the history of human civilisation. At any one time, Nova Venezia can accommodate one hundred thousand million starships, or sizes varying from single-pilot shuttles to kilometre-long freight haulers. That is a number simply too large to fit in the human mind, unless you've seen the ships with your own eyes. And, in silent testament to the galactic scale of the Imperium, Nova Venezia is forever surrounded by a cloud of ships, orbiting six or seven deep, waiting for docking facilities to become available.
I watched this impossible monument to human expansion, this relic of the Dark Age of Technology when such godlike creations were wrought by human hands, in silence from the bridge of the Catherine. It was perhaps an hour before I turned from the forward portholes, long after we had taken up low orbital position, waiting for a berth. Benedict was in the command chair, and glanced at me as I turned, with an expression that communicated perfectly the shared experience we both now had. Much of what I've said of Nova Venezia I learned later, but even then I'm sure the Sisterhood had taught me more Imperial history than Benedict, a civilian, would have been allowed to know. I wondered what he had thought when he first saw this sight - how he had reacted, completely unprepared for its scale and majesty as he must have been.
Benedict was a good captain, and though he barely knew me - I could scarcely afford to let him know too much - he was a good friend to me. He arranged, by use of his contacts within the various shipping guilds that operated from Nova Venezia, for me to have an unrestricted shore pass, allowing me to go wherever I pleased on the commerce world. He also gave me a letter bearing his personal seal, endorsing any application I might make for service on another ship, and gave me the names and registry codes of several ships either docked already or waiting in orbit, whose captains would look favourably on me given his recommendation. Doing this was a considerable risk for him, in light of the suspicions he must have had concerning my recent past. When the time finally came for me to leave the Catherine, after we had drifted slowly towards the surface and settled into a berth beneath the steel ground, I asked him why he was putting himself at risk for my sake, given that I had, truthfully, done no more for him than any other hired crewman would have in the circumstances. He smiled briefly, almost shyly, then looked past me, through the airlock porthole to the towering wall of the ship's berth, where dozens of dock workers were scurrying about in pressure suits, talking to each other in codes of light that travelled through the vacuum. His expression changed, becoming melancholy.
"I'm sure your life is difficult at the moment," he said slowly, "so I'm helping you, as best I can, make it a little easier. I hope you'll have a few moments here and there when you won't have to worry about the next step in front of you, and you'll have time to look up to the horizon and think about where you want your life to take you. That way maybe you'll eventually get where you want to be, and not get so caught up in trying to make a living day by day that you forget what you're trying to live for. I wish someone had done the same for me a long time ago."
"So do I," I said. It seemed the best thanks I could offer him. He smiled sadly.
"And of course," he said after a moment, with a new tone in his voice marking the change of subject, "I appreciate what you did with those pirates. You saved Gerrin's life, certainly, maybe mine too. And speaking their rites, after the battle. Not many people would have done that, for pirates, and fewer still would have really believed the words they were saying. It reminded me of a team of Sororitas I met a long time ago, during the border wars out by Hydraphur system."
He was speaking slowly and deliberately, choosing his words with great care. It was only then, I think, that I realised how much he had guessed correctly about me, and the trust he was placing in me by not turning me over to the Sisterhood.
"They were fine soldiers," he went on, "maybe the best I've seen. I've never met any Marines, and they say they're unstoppable, but those Sisters were about as good as I can imagine humans being. Not perfect, of course, but perfection is for the Emperor, not us mortals. What impressed me most was that they had faith - not belief, that's not the same thing. Most every human alive believes, because they can see the Emperor in everything around them, in the cathedrals and armies and starships. Belief's easy. But those Sisters could have had every holy shrine, and sacred relic, and whatever else that showed the galaxy who and what they were - they could have had it all taken away, and they still would have had faith, inside. You remind me of them."
The airlock had finally aligned with its gantry in the berth, and rolled open. I couldn't speak, so I mouthed a silent 'thank you' to Benedict and left the Catherine behind me. He was a better judge of people than he knew - from a few scraps of information, and some shrewd guesses, he'd seen the cause of my distress, and had done his best to help me, to prove to myself I was still a Sister of Battle, no matter what the Sisterhood had judged me to be. It was welcome help, for I stepped out into Nova Venezia, the largest single population in the Imperium, with no notion of where I should go, what I should do - who I should be. Among the crowds of people, of every class, race and station, no-one gave me a second glance. I clung to that single strand of identity, and repeated it to myself, making myself believe it: "I am a Sister of Battle."
Perhaps, had I not been so intent on my inner thoughts, I would have sensed that I was being watched. But, taking into account what it was that was watching me, I think perhaps not.
If my mind was centred on a single thought when I first stepped out into Nova Venezia, it was soon thrown into confusion by the bombardment of humanity I encountered. In the barely five hundred metres from the Catherine's docking complex to the nearest commercial centre I passed every kind of human imaginable: short, stocky dock workers, sleek Navigators, robed tech-priests and their lumbering servitors, missionaries and preachers, willowy astro-telepaths, silent, ominous confessors, ciphers scurrying about their errands, Adepts of every rank and function, Navy officers and ratings, Imperial Guardsmen and Space Marines, merchant crew and captains, rogue traders and fortune seekers. There were a handful of abhumans, never far from their escorts: huge, hulking Ogryns peering about themselves in confusion as their human officers led them through the crowd, and tiny Ratlings, eyes darting from place to place as rapidly as they moved. At one point I passed an alien, a species I didn't know, its high, wide collar displaying the Imperial scrolls of submission that allowed it to interact with humans, and in one corner of a long gallery I passed through, I saw a group of slim, aloof Eldar, keeping their postures deliberately neutral to the throng of humanity surrounding them, but watching everything through hooded eyes.
I came at last to a vast hall, built like a spacecraft hangar but large enough to enclose the entire spread of Hadron's spaceport. There I came to the end of the vague path I had been following without thinking, while I struggled to deal with the sudden influx of beings, after the solitude of space and the Catherine's small crew. I made my way to one of the dozens of bars that lined the sides of the great hall, catering to the thousands of travellers who passed through it every day. I took a seat far enough from the vendor's counter that I doubted I'd be seen by the hurried waiters - I hardly felt like adding drunkenness to my problems - and took stock of my situation.
It amounted to this: I was alone, far from home, and lost. The money I had earned for my service on the Catherine would see me through a few days at most - it would be more on another world, but Nova Venezia's commercial sector was geared to extracting the value from visitors as quickly as possible, since no-one stayed very long. In the immediate future I needed a means to support myself. Becoming part of any Imperial agency was impossible - even the most menial Adept's position required a full identification and genetic purity scan, which would reveal me as a former Sister and a condemned woman. With the names Benedict had given me I might continue as I had begun, travelling on commercial ships, wandering the galaxy aimlessly. But that prospect struck a note of discord in me, and I didn't need to wonder long to see why.
The fact was, though my life had been guided by the decisions of others, I would not have chosen differently had the decisions been mine to make. As far back as I could remember I had been thankful to the Emperor for the benefits His servants provided for me, my family, and my world. During my education, first on my homeworld and then at the Schola, I had learned just how lucky I had been - never threatened by plague, famine or war, the hordes and fleets of Orks, Tyranids and Eldar raiders kept at bay dozens of light-years away by the ever-vigilant Imperial Navy. The Imperium, the melding of a million human worlds into a single civilisation, existed for the protection of all of us, and it existed because the Emperor had built it. If, instead of simply telling me how I was to serve Him, I had been asked: did I wish to become a Sister of Battle, fulfilling the highest duty to Him that was within my grasp? of course I would have said yes.
So I saw for myself a life of service - not submission, for the Sisters of Battle never surrendered their will to anyone but the Emperor Himself - but of recognition that my own safety and needs were not worth the sacrifice of the safety and needs of others, and that by the use of those skills of battle which the Sisterhood had detected in me, I could shield untold numbers of my fellow humans from the savagery and desolation of war. Just as I myself, as a child, had grown up safe behind the shield of the Navy, and the Imperial Guard. That was the life I was selected for by the Imperium, and it was a life I had never regretted. But now that the Imperium was turned against me, could I still serve the Emperor? Who would tell me where to go, who to protect, who to fight? What would replace the orders of the Sisterhood, the intelligence of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the foresight of the Astra Telepathica and the Emperor's Tarot? What was the Emperor's will for me?
"You look sad."
I had turned my thoughts completely inward, such that I hadn't even noticed the young girl as she approached me and stood in front of me. Collecting my awareness I realised she had been there for a few moments, peering up under the hood of my cloak, which I had let fall forwards to shield my face from the hall's harsh lighting. She was just a child, certainly no older than ten years, and strikingly out of place in a bustling commercial spaceport. She wore a faded old crewman's work suit, on which I could see the lines of stitching where it had been taken in to fit her tiny frame, the material dotted with patchwork repairs and a handful of old ship badges. Her hair was cut in a simple, no-nonsense fashion, frayed but luminously golden. She continued to watch me, waiting for an response to her observation.
"Why do you say that?" I asked. She tilted her head to one side and peered at me, and I had a sudden memory of the Sister Superior who had first chosen me for the Sisterhood - her stare was the same methodical evaluation of everything she saw.
"You don't look like you're going anywhere. They're all going somewhere," she nodded towards the rest of the bar's patrons, and I could see what she was talking about: they were either in a hurry to finish their drinks and leave, or enjoying themselves with the temporary status of their leisure time floating above them like clouds. You could see it in their faces, in their gestures, in the way they sat and moved, in their posture - every single one of them, no matter what he was doing, was under the rule of a clock, and a deadline somewhere.
"You're not from here," the girl went on, as if delivering a lesson for my benefit, "and no-one who visits here ever stays. But you're not going anywhere. So something much be wrong with you, and it's making you sad." She crossed her arms, satisfied with her conclusions, then added as if as an afterthought: "Are you lost?" I had to smile at that.
"Not exactly," I replied. She frowned.
"Either you're lost or you aren't," she countered.
"If I were lost, I'd have somewhere to go, but I wouldn't know how to get there. I just don't know where I have to go."
The girl's frown deepened as she subjected this statement to analysis. I confess my spirits were being lifted by meeting this strange child, who had all the innocence of a baby and the seriousness of a fleet admiral.
"Do you have to go anywhere?" she asked after a moment.
"I think I do."
"Are you a soldier? You've got armour like a soldier."
"Yes, I'm a soldier."
"Who do you work for?"
"The Emperor," I answered without thinking. The girl frowned again.
"That's the same answer everyone gives, but they don't mean it. They're afraid of Him, and they pray to Him, but they don't listen to Him in case He says anything to them."
"Well, it's the only answer I have," I said. "What's your name?" The girl frowned, yet again.
"Tell me yours first," she demanded, with the finality of a general demanding an opponent's unconditional surrender.
"Melendy!" rang out a voice from the crowd. The girl gave the most beautifully theatrical sigh of dismay at having her secret of the moment revealed. A boy, a few years older than her, wove his way out of the press of moving people and came to her side, standing slightly ahead of her, defensively.
"What have I told you," he whispered quickly, then turned his attention to me, crossing his arms and squaring his shoulders. "Sorry if she's been bothering you sir, won't happen again," he said in a quick, formal burst of a sentence.
"I'm not bothering her," the girl, Melendy, complained. At the same moment I pulled my hood back, letting the boy see my face. He eased a bit - not having seen anything more than a suit of armour under a cloak, he had probably taken me for a mercenary or hired gun, and my appearance no doubt surprised him a bit.
"She's been no trouble," I reassured him. He looked doubtful, but I sensed his doubt was now directed more at the notion that the girl - his sister, the resemblance was too pronounced to be coincidental now that I had taken a good look at him - had been no trouble. He glared at her, then looked back at me.
"Sorry about this ma'am," he repeated, but his tone was more conversational now he didn't regard me as a threat, "she knows better than to talk to strangers normally."
"She's not a stranger," insisted Melendy vehemently - I began to doubt if she ever did or said anything half-heartedly, "she doesn't know what she has to do with herself."
"And I suppose you do?" answered the boy, giving me a sly grin that I recognised from my own brothers as meaning 'just humour her'. Melendy completely ignored her brother's sarcasm
"Of course," she said, and a High Cardinal couldn't have delivered an Ecclesiarchal decree with more authority, "she's a soldier, so she's here to kill the beast."
"Oh please, she's probably got somewhere important to go. I'm Corin, by the way," he said, switching his attention from his sister to me with practiced smoothness - he'll be a charmer when he grows up, I thought, for now that he felt at ease with me he had a considerable presence, in a friendly sort of way. Melendy fixed me with a triumphant stare, her eyes plainly saying 'now you'll have to tell me your name' as if I'd been keeping it a secret just to spite her.
"Antonia," I answered. I'd caught myself just before I started to say 'Sister Antonia' - even this far from Hadron it would be best if I kept a low profile, for it is only in rare cases that Sisters operate alone, and if I had posed as a legitimate Sister I risked drawing the attention of Nova Venezia's own Sisters. I had a vague memory that the world had a whole minor Order, devoted solely to the billions of people who lived there and passed through on visiting ships. I was beginning to find that I trusted Corin and his precocious sister, but we were hardly alone, and an ill-considered comment from me could easily be overheard.
"Honoured, ma'am," Corin said, bowing with considerably more style than you might expect from a young boy on such a utilitarian world.
"She's not going anywhere," insisted Melendy, "if she were I would know it," and now she was the one giving me a covert glance, this one - if I read it correctly - saying 'give me a moment, my brother is an idiot but I'll explain this to him in simple words'. I had to stifle a laugh.
"No you wouldn't," Corin retorted.
"Of course I would."
"Well of course you wouldn't know, that's why I have to tell you."
"What's this beast?" I asked. The word had worried me when Melendy said it, and it hadn't escaped my notice that Corin had shivered ever so slightly when she mentioned it. Melendy said a soldier was needed to kill it, and Corin hadn't said anything to imply that his sister was making it up. I wondered what sort of creature it was, and how it could trouble a civilised world like Nova Venezia, with its militia, defence regiments, Arbitrators and Sisters. Now that I look back on it, I think at that moment I decided to be a Battle Sister again, if indeed there was an enemy to fight. Corin and Melendy reminded me of the children in my village, back on Brightwater, and that was a picture of carefree childhood innocence that I would not have tainted by some monster, even if it did turn out to be something relatively innocuous. Besides, it wasn't as if I had anything else that demanded my attention.
The children were orphans, I learned. Their mother had died when Melendy was very young - Corin had only fleeting memories of her. Their father had been deputy supervisor of the nearest docking bay, which I realised was a position of some importance in a society where shipyards were the centres of industry, akin to the blacksmith in a rural village, or the factory spire of a hive city. He had been killed a year ago, one of hundreds of victims of an old cargo hauler with a faulty ion drive which had lost control during its approach and crashed through the side of the dock. Corin told me this, and no more, in a quiet voice, glancing towards Melendy on my other side as we walked to make sure she wasn't being upset. Once he had told me what he felt I needed to know, he changed the subject at once, and I let him. It seemed possible, maybe likely, that they had both been somewhere near the dock when it happened - Corin's familiarity with dockwork wasn't recent, nor was his role as caretaker to Melendy. To children living in such a mechanical, predictable environment, with no rain or winds, no thunderstorms or lightning, I can barely imagine what it must have been like to have the world beneath their feet torn to pieces by a calamity of apocalyptic proportions. For that is certainly how it must have seemed - a half-mile-long hauler, fully laden with hundreds upon hundreds of tonnes of metal ores, would crash through the hull of Nova Venezia like a cannonball through a wooden stockade. I wondered that the dock was even operational now, a year later, let alone repaired so efficiently that I hadn't seen a sign of the devastation that must have occurred - but then, Nova Venezia was one of the few worlds where word a local disaster would reach the ears of the High Lords themselves, far away on Terra, and no expense would have been spared to heal one of the Imperium's most vital organs.
"Since then I've been working the docks," Corin explained, "hauling loaders mostly, but sometimes I get to work in the pit." This was the great chasm in which docking ships were berthed. "Some of the guys who work in the pit have known me for ages, they know I can do the job. The dockmaster doesn't like it, but I'm old enough to be qualified for outside work, and I've been around the docks as long as I remember. There's barely an inch of them I haven't crawled over at some time, so the other workers like having me on shift. Once a ship's home and berthed I make some extra credits hauling the personnel cargo loaders. We've got servo-loaders, but they're always breaking down, and sometimes they get lost. The tech-priests are too busy to keep them all fixed all the time, so we just clamp anti-gravs to the cargo modules and shift them manually. More reliable, really." This way, I gathered, Corin had managed to scrape together enough credits each month for the food and water he and his sister needed. I suppose there were any number of people like him, hovering just above the poverty line, largely ignored by the administration of the world, doing menial tasks that needed to be done, but which no-one ever noticed unless they failed.
I expected their living quarters to be something akin to those of a hive city, with the mammoth populations packed tightly into thousands of mass-produced habitation sectors, like insects in their own hives, but I was mistaken. Corin and Melendy, and indeed a great number of people, lived in 'the factory', a huge Adeptus Mechanicus techno-synthesis foundry adjoining the docking sector. It made a cold sort of sense, when I thought about it - Nova Venezia couldn't afford to waste any space, not even the gaps between the giant machine forges, and so those tiny spaces were filled with people, most of whom lived their lives servicing the machines they lived inside of. It was like a spacecraft, with living quarters sandwiched between engines and hull however they would fit.
The children's home was two makeshift rooms, one a part of an access tunnel, the other a workspace used during the construction of the forge, and disused ever since. It was cramped, and always smelled faintly of ozone, which I gathered was from the atmosphere cyclers several levels below. But it was clean, and a lot more comfortable than most of the living spaces in the factory. What furniture there was was old but sturdy, and though Corin said nothing about it, I guessed that when his father had been alive they had lived in a more hospitable area, of which the two beds and the table and chairs were a remnant of. The main room contained the dining area where we ate the ration-like meals Corin and I had bought on our way down, and also contained shelves welded into the wall, for the convenience of the original workmen who built the place. The other room, smaller and with a lower ceiling, had only the two beds, with a mismatched assortment of blankets and pillows.
The nearest living quarters were a quarter of a mile away, said Corin, and a level up. This answered a question I had been meaning to ask, when I found the right moment, and brought the subject of the beast that Melendy had mentioned. Corin wasn't comfortable talking about it in front of her - despite the odd circumstances and misfortunes of his life, I recognised in him a lot of my own brothers, who would affect disinterest in me, but closed ranks in an instant if it seemed another of the village children was causing trouble for me. Just like them, Corin would tease Melendy to the point of distraction, though she seemed to often get the upper hand over him, but he would instantly leap to her defence at the merest suggestion of a threat.
From what he told me, quietly and making sure Melendy's attention was otherwise occupied, this beast was a threat indeed. People had gone missing - he wouldn't say who, or how many, for much of what he knew was rumour itself. But he seemed to be the type who would have a good instinct for rumour, and be able to spot the truth among a pack of exaggerated stories. No trace had been found of the missing people, nothing to indicate their fate, no signs of struggle or injury to them - they simply vanished. Among the population of billions, a dozen people (Corin thought it unlikely there had been more disappearances than that) simply didn't constitute a threat in the eyes of the Adeptus Arbites, so a judge had not been dispatched to the factory. No-one seemed to know anything about the person or thing that was responsible, but someone had begun a rumour that a monstrous alien creature had come from one of the visiting ships, and was preying on the human population - just the kind of fanciful tale a drunk worker would invent to decorate a tavern, but the idea had gotten stuck in the minds of the factory's population, and 'the beast' had become the name of the unknown.
I learned this in bits and pieces, interspersed with other conversation during the trek down from the docking levels to the factory, and when the talk turned to less important matters I let my thoughts drift a little, to see what conclusions I could draw. But the simple fact was that I had too little information to even guess what was going on. Disappearing people could mean any number of things, and in a society as unique and idiosyncratic as Nova Venezia, the explanation could be anything. Only one possibility did I discount then and there: that the disappearances were coincidence. I don't discount the possibility of unconnected events having the appearance of a common cause, but even then, when my contact with civilians had been limited, I knew that even though anything could become a rumour, only a rumour with some basis in fact tended to remain in the minds of more than a handful of eccentric theorists. From what Corin told me, the beast was still being discussed in every bar and service hall in the factory's local sector, and this troubled me.
I had told the children much of my own story, once we were away from the commercial areas and there was no-one to overhear. I avoided some of the details of my expulsion from the Sisterhood - I said that I had left, but kept to myself the reasons why. Corin looked for a moment as if he was going to inquire further, but Melendy slapped him playfully on the shoulder, and winked at me. This, and other little things in the way she talked and listened as we made the trip from the dock to the factory, made me wonder if her insightfulness was more than the product of a keen mind and a child's vision, unsullied by the thousands of things that older people fill their thoughts with to stop themselves from seeing anything they don't want or need to know. When I wondered if she had some power, I found I had the impression that whatever she had was pure, not a side-effect of corrupt mutation - and I knew somehow that this impression wasn't simply instinct on my part, but a result of my own expanded senses.
Surprisingly, I slept well. My night shifts on the Catherine, when I wasn't on duty, had been composed mainly of tossing and turning, slipping in and out of sleep and random dreams without ever really becoming restful. I put it down to Corin, who reminded me so much of my brothers that, in my makeshift bed in the main room, with only a single blanket and pillow - I had refused more, not wanting to inconvenience the children further, and being used to Spartan conditions anyway - I felt as if I had regained something of the home I had left behind all those years ago. At any rate, whatever the reason I was asleep as soon as I lay down.
And then I was dreaming, the calm, comforting way I used dream to before the steady routines of my life had been interrupted by one worry after another, and my nights became a series of half-forgotten images with no rhyme or reason to them. I was in a forest of tall trees, with sturdy, ridged trunks almost like armour, and wide leaves above me spreading out to filter the midday sunlight. The ground was soft and just a little moist, as if I was close to a river - back at home, it would have been excellent ground for farming. My armour was gone, and I wore instead a loose-fitting outfit that reminded me of the half-robes I and all the other Progena had worn at the Schola. All around me were signs of life, bird-calls echoing through the leaves, rustling in the low bushes that clustered around the trunks of the tall trees as tiny animals went about their business. The air had moisture in it, and I could hear running water not far away.
As has always been the case when I dream lucidly, it took no effort at all to push away from the ground and rise slowly into the air. I brushed the fronds of the trees as I ascended past them, then arched my back, looked up into the sky, and kicked out behind me to soar above the treetops, into the sun. I drifted to a halt a hundred metres straight up, soaking in the light, and spun lazily around to take in my surroundings. The trees stretched for miles, and there was the river, snaking its way through the low valley. Two miles away was a city, built from stone and brick, its painted columns shining white and red in the sunlight. There were people crawling over it, tiny specks of movement from where I was watching, and at its centre rose a great temple, a stepped pyramid topped by an immense wooden roof, with a great bronze bowl in front of the huge double-doors leading inside, where kindling was piled high, waiting for the torch to be lit.
It was like nowhere I had ever seen or heard of - it would be impossible, on an Imperial world, for such a building to exist without boasting a statue of the Emperor, or the two-headed eagle of the Imperium spreading its carved wings over the doorway. Yet here it was, and it seemed comforting to see it, and all the people going about their lives, toiling at whatever strange tasks a city like this ran on, worshipping whatever god they called theirs. For a moment I simply watched, and gave up all thought of exploring or reasoning about what I saw.
Then the temple, the city, the valley vanished beneath me in a rush of movement. I was rising impossibly high, the river fading to a streak of blue, then vanishing in a maze of green and brown, growing more and more distant, until at last I was with the stars, looking down on a tiny marble of a world, a lonely, perfect sphere curving through space on its endless path. The image was confusing, and the experience had become unsettling, not like a dream at all. I willed myself to wake up, denying the sight before me and concentrating on opening my eyes, no matter that my senses told me they were already open, staring at a strange planet.
It was at the last moment that my confusion cleared, and in that same moment my insistent will opened my eyes and snapped me out of the dream. As I lay in the dark, listening again to the distant hum of the factory's forges, I knew what I had seen, and why I had been confused. The colours were wrong, the brown and green lands, clear blue oceans and snow-white clouds, and where the boundary of night cut across the world there were no lights - but the shape of the continents was unmistakeable. The world in my dream was Terra.
Had I still been a Sister, a dream like that would have earned me an extensive round of psychic probes and theological reviews - it could have been a pure vision from the Emperor, or just as easily a delusion of a corrupted mind. I chuckled despite myself when I thought of the judgement the Sisterhood had already passed on me - and now dreaming of Terra, on top of being a condemned witch. Of course I wondered what it meant, but the interpretation of such visions - assuming they are pure - is never performed by anyone less than a Canoness, leaving me with no idea where to begin. But with the realisation of what I had seen, my unease had calmed, and I had no trouble falling asleep again. Then I dreamed of home, and the Sisterhood, and had no more visions of anything.
The next day, when Corin and Melendy went back up to the dock - he to work, and she to stay somewhere where he could keep an eye on her - I made some discreet enquiries among the inhabitants of the factory, and eventually found my way to the nearest outpost of the Adeptus Arbites. The most consistent rumours of the beast put in me the suspicion that it was a case of xenos infestation - some alien animal unwittingly picked up by a freighter or hauler, that had slipped ashore when its ship had berthed and was settling into whatever pattern of predatory behaviour it had been born to on its distant home. Such a case, interwoven as it is with space travel, would be under the jurisdiction of the Arbitrators, rather than a lesser civilian force. Even on a world like Nova Venezia off-world travel - even having dealings with off-world travel - is forbidden to non-essential civilians, of whom there were a vast number despite the necessity to have millions of people working in the docks. Those whose tasks were in the forges, the refineries and the life support production plants of Nova Venezia were never given access to the dock areas, and were discouraged from mingling too much with those who did. The separation of on- and off-worlders on all Imperial worlds had been nothing but a regulation in the Sisterhood, whose only interactions with civilians were administering the purity control tests, or suppressing cult activity, but now that I saw the separation in action, from the point of view of a civilian, it began to seem faintly ludicrous.
I had a sense of urgency as I made my way through the civilian-operated checkpoints leading to the fortress-precinct of the Arbites. Melendy had complained of having bad dreams during the night, and when I asked her to describe them - wondering if they had anything to do with my own dreams - she leaned close to me, away from Corin who was busy preparing breakfast for her.
"I can hear it," she whispered, and there was none of her sly humour or mock seriousness. "The beast, when I'm asleep. You'll hear it too, if you stay here long enough to get used to it. It doesn't fit in. It frightens me. I'm afraid that it'll hear me." I tried to sound comforting as I talked to her, but there was really nothing I could say that would help, and I knew that vacant reassurances wouldn't get anything beyond a don't-patronise-me frown. She was genuinely frightened of this beast, and she was telling me the absolute truth, as clearly as she knew it, that much I was certain of. So it was no small disappointment to find that the Arbitrators were far from convinced that the beast even existed, let alone were wiling to do something about it.
"The quarantine procedures against xenos are quite sufficient to eliminate any conceivable threat," said the young Arbitrator who spoke to me after I ran the gauntlet of the precinct's bureaucracy to get a hearing from an actual officer. He was barely out of his teens, and I wondered if he had ever seen combat, or even any moment where he had faced a real, immediate threat to his life. My armour and bearing allowed me to be taken as a professional - probably the only reason I hadn't been turned away at once - but of course I couldn't claim the authority of the Sisterhood. I was struck by the irony of the situation - six months ago, I could have walked right through the entire precinct, into the Arbitrator-General's personal office if I wished, to administer purity tests, and most of the Arbitrators - certainly this young pup - would be falling over themselves to be respectful, out of piety, and probably a little fear. Everyone knew the penalty for failing the tests.
As it was, I simply could not make him budge, no matter what line of questioning I tried. No, he insisted, it was impossible that an alien creature might have come off a berthed ship without someone seeing it and reporting it. No, again, any predatory activity - of whatever source - among the population of Nova Venezia would be detected and eliminated by the local security forces. No, it was absolutely out of the question that a xenos of impure psychic ability might be responsible for the rumours of a creature in the factory - the psykers of the Adeptus Astra Telepathica made sure that there was no such taint on the entire world. I hesitated before bringing up the subject of an animal with psychic abilities, for - again - civilians aren't meant to know of such things, but he was so obviously taking me for an off-world bounty hunter that I thought it would arouse no suspicion, and by this point I was becoming desperate for some way to make the Arbitrators see that, at the very least, a search should be made. But all to no avail - the only official response I got was to have the man indicate the standard bounty on illegal xenos, which he made sure to tell me had not been successfully claimed in decades.
I hadn't expected a great deal of help from the Arbites in any case - in my experience their self-imposed isolation from the populations they protect makes them analytical at the expense of their humanity: they would consider such an opinion to be needlessly sentimental, but I've often wondered what might the point be of protecting a hundred people, if you're willing to let one person die. In many cases such an attitude is borne of necessity, of course - better to save the hundred and lose the one than the other way around - but to the Arbitrators it's too often an attitude that has become so ingrained in their methods that they simply ignore any threat too menial to register on a global scale - they would let the one die, regardless of whether their action might jeopardise the hundred. In the case of the beast, the disappearances were a handful, and it was clear that they would do nothing unless there was some clear evidence of a xenos presence - and that evidence, if it ever came, would probably be the death toll rising into the dozens, if not hundreds.
As I say I had little hope that they would help, but finding and eliminating the beast on my own brought its own set of problems. Though I was unarmed, I had my armour - its servos augmented my strength beyond that of any normal human, and there are few creatures known to the Imperium with claws or teeth capable of tearing through plasteel composite. I didn't discount the possibility of such a creature being responsible for the disappearances, but it was remote - and, in any case, I had no choice but to try. So fighting the beast was not the issue that troubled me - either I would kill it, or it me, and that is a scenario that any Sister is comfortable with, if the goal is just. No, the problem would be finding it: the factory had few enough internal sensors and security systems, and without the Arbitrators' ability to monitor those, and their customised life-sensor equipment, I would have to rely on the rudimentary sensors in my armour, and what skill I had at tracking a creature through an artificial environment - which was essentially none, as we had never been trained for such an event.
I spent most of the day - Nova's days are 28 hours - walking the desolate corridors of the factory, in search of any information I could find. Much of the time I was walking past closed dwellings, their occupants either elsewhere at work, or asleep from a night shift. But there were some people around, on their way to and from their stations, or running errands. The more affluent the person I talked to, the more they seemed only to want to get away from me. I supposed that strangers were unwelcome in the factory, and I caught a few muttered oaths against bounty hunters and the like, when I was far enough away that I was thought out of earshot. But as I travelled further down, away from the surface and the dock, the more I found myself in a different community than the one above, of long hours of shift work. Below was a different society completely, where there was no work, no money, only what could be scavenged from disused cargo vaults, or stolen from the helpless. I had no worries about my safety - even the self-styled masters of the gangs in the under-levels were poor, malnourished brawlers, no match for a trained fighter in power armour, and though I attracted any number of hostile and envious stares, no-one so much as spoke out of turn when they thought I was watching them, nor did they shadow me through the corridors once they had seen me clearly. It was like a black parody of the hive-gangs of Necromunda, starved of food, light and shelter, a violent, petty world eking out an existence in a forgotten corner of Nova Venezia.
Here the people spoke more freely, when there seemed no threat in doing so - had I asked them about criminals or gang activity, I might have found a wall of silence, but no-one had any fear of retribution for talking about the beast. They were afraid of the beast itself, though, truly afraid, as only people who are sure of the object of their fear can be. In the higher levels of the factory the beast had been a rumour; here it was almost a presence, known to all, feared by all, understood by none. Whoever I spoke to, I heard of people vanishing, in greater numbers than I had been told before, sometimes entire families at once. I reckoned how many people, down in such a society, must 'vanish' every day through starvation, mishaps while scavenging unsafe sectors, gang brawls and the like - it was not encouraging that, in such a world, the beast's predation was marked enough that no-one was in any doubt as to its activities. More disturbing still, I heard rumours that some of the 'vanished' people had been found again, lying in corridors and waste vents, staring vacantly at nothing - brain dead. There was no chance of examining such a person, of course - anyone unable to provide for themselves, let alone comatose, was quietly suffocated and fed into the processor forges.
Still, this new information brought me no closer to finding the source of the killings - for, no matter the condition of the victims, they were as good as dead, according to what I was told. I ended up in deserted corridors, miles beneath the surface, at the very base of the factory with nothing beneath me but uninhabitable plasma cycler chambers rumbling to themselves. I was tired, and hungry, for I hadn't eaten since the morning, though to be honest it didn't bother me too much. But above all I was at a loss - I had a task, a fitting mission for someone devoted to following the Emperor's will and protecting His people, yet I had no idea how to achieve it. I began to wonder if the comfort I had found earlier, in having a purpose to my life again, was just an illusion borne of na´ve hope.
I know I didn't fall asleep, because no matter how depressed I might have been I was simply not so careless a soldier to let my guard down in such a place, deserted though it seemed. But I stopped thinking rationally for a moment, and let the thoughts empty from my mind, listening only to the rumble of the cyclers and the whirring of the distant vent fans. It was almost a waking sleep, the way I let myself stop analysing, and wondering, and became aware only of what I could feel around me. And then I heard the beast, just as Melendy had said I would.
It was a dull thumping, like a heartbeat slowed down, but it wasn't a human heart, or anything I had ever heard. In a way I'm not sure if I can properly describe, it was simply alien - it was a piece of something utterly unlike me, or any human being. But I could hear it, and as I concentrated on it the sound grew louder in my mind - I was sure it wasn't my ears that were hearing it - and a sense grew within me of how it fitted in to the place I was in, a tantalising suggestion that I might be able to track it down. I pictured the sound in my mind as a thread, and grasped it tightly - that was the key, holding the sound, and I knew what direction to go, how far, everything. But even as I sat bolt upright the sound changed, the edges of the beats became ragged, and a hiss began to form underneath them. It was as if the presence I had sensed had now sensed me - it felt more active, more conscious, and as its thoughts began to filter into its mind it snapped shut, leaving my mind silent. I was sure that, whatever the beast was, it had become aware of me, as I had of it. But I knew where it was, and I was ready to fight it.